On paper, Iowa looks strong at linebacker—strong enough for this missive of glowing praise from the official team site. The Hawkeyes return Christian Kirksey, James Morris and Anthony Hitchens at the position, and the players have combined for nine letters won and six years of starting experience. They averaged over 110 tackles per player last season, and they were by far the three leading tacklers on the team in 2012.
But while making a tackle is obviously better than missing a tackle, simply counting tackles doesn't accomplish much; you'd rather have a defense that records two tackles and a pass defended on a 3-and-out possession than a defense that records 11 tackles and no passes defended on a backbreaking 80-yard touchdown drive, after all.
So you look for other stats, ones more indicative of positive performance. Tackles for loss? 18 between the three of them, including a surprising nine for Morris. Sure, Iowa was dead last in the Big Ten in TFLs on the whole, but we're willing to put that one on a defensive line that couldn't push upfield to save its life last year. 18's not great, but it's better than what Iowa usually gets from its LB corps.
Passes defended? This is an important statistic; what made Iowa's best linebacking corps great was every bit about their coverage skills as it was about their tackling prowess. Pat Angerer, A.J. Edds and Chad Greenway in particular were fantastic in space, and that (more than run support) helped all three work their way into the NFL.
On that front, Morris recorded 5 passes defended (PD): 4 passes broken up (PBU) and one pick. That's not great, but historically it's close to what the average linebacker produces at Iowa. Kirksey recorded two picks (both returned for TDs, which, fun!) and broke up two passes. Hitchens, however, recorded none. No interceptions, no passes broken up. He didn't stop a single pass from being completed all year. If his man couldn't catch a pass thrown their way, it was because the throw was too bad for anyone to touch it. That was Iowa's best hope all year for Hitchens in coverage.
And it's not as if the linebackers were too busy playing behind the line of scrimmage to be asked to provide great pass defense; they registered just 4.5 sacks on the year total, including a grand total of one from Hitchens. Yes, they had 18 tackles for loss, but that was just 5.3% of their total tackles.
On the whole, Iowa gave up a record-breaking (in a bad way) 63.5% completion percentage last year. Sure, a lot of that has to do with a rough year from the secondary, especially at safety. And the lack of a pass rush hurts there too. But it also hurts, a lot, when the three starting linebackers (who missed a grand total of one game to injury) chip in a total of just nine passes defended and 4.5 sacks for the entire season.
And let's not forget, the Big Ten couldn't pass worth a good god damn in 2012. The best passers Iowa faced all year were, like, Matt McGloin and Taylor Martinez. Martinez struggled in the cold, windy weather. McGloin ate Iowa alive.
And it dawns on you: these linebackers aren't very good. Remember, Hitchens got benched late in the year for substandard play (he was still named All-Big Ten honorable mention by both coaches and the media). Morris only managed an All Big Ten honorable mention from the media, who bestowed that honor on 77 Big Ten players last year. That's better than we can say for Kirksey, who was snubbed by both teams.
Think about that: between the First Team, Second Team, and Honorable Mention teams, the media named 125 Big Ten players for postseason honors last year. Kirksey couldn't crack that list.
To be clear, the linebacking corps was still the strongest of the three areas on defense for Iowa last year. The defensive line was young and ineffectual, and the secondary was 1/4 Micah Hyde and 3/4 OH GOD THE PAIN.
But at the same time, the potential for improvement looks a lot higher on the line and in the back four than it does at LB. Hitchens, Morris and Kirksey are more or less known quantities at this point, and though their offseasons are every bit as geared toward improvement as anyone else's, the improvement of a senior (especially one with three letters' worth of experience under his belt) is much more incremental than that of a younger player.
So we find Iowa in a situation where it needs its linebackers to carry an otherwise subpar defense, but the senior-heavy linebacking corps is both not good enough to do that and unlikely to rise to that level in 2013. So, neat-o, gang. Neat-o.